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Intellectual Property Rights and Your Brand: What to Expect From Your Creative Firm

Intellectual property (IP for short) and copyrights can be particularly tricky issues that companies and brands must navigate as part of their relationship with a creative services firm. For example, when projects are completed, clients may receive logo files, printed brochures or a web site. But do they really own the rights to those files, or are they just leasing them?   Usage rights, such as ownership of intellectual property and copyrights, are typically defined in the “terms and conditions” of a contract or proposal for design services, and are meant to protect the design firm or agency. Sometimes, however, these stipulations are not in alignment with client needs. To help clear up some of the confusion about this issue, let’s examine what rights companies and their brands are entitled to, especially after paying in full for a given project.   Intellectual Property Rights. What you are really paying for.

Rights that you should be granted when you pay for creative work

  Unethical creative firms might try to sell “limited” rights to produce a certain number of brochures, or use the web site for a certain period of time, after which you must pay them more money for the continued usage. This used to be typical of certain types of creative professionals, such as photographers and illustrators, (digital competition has all but eliminated this practice). Remember having to pay outrageous prices for photographic prints, since the rights to the film negatives were “owned” by the photographer?   Make sure the usage rights purchased are “exclusive” and “full” or “unlimited,” meaning that only your company or brand has the right to reproduce the artwork any way it sees fit. It goes without saying that all logos, business systems (stationery), and sales collateral should be granted full and unlimited usage rights. You are also entitled to request a copy of all final digital files for the piece, no matter what it is.  

What you don’t get just because you pay for creative work

  Usage rights are a means in which creative firms protect their initial concepts and ideas so that preliminary work cannot simply be taken to another firm for execution and reproduction. Companies typically buy the usage rights to ONE of the ideas or concepts that is developed to solve a creative challenge—not all of the ideas. These preliminary ideas might include handwritten notes generated during the Discovery Meeting, to sketches on the back of a napkin.   This same principle applies even if during the course of a project third party services are used. Copywriters will take copious amounts of notes, and many ideas end up in the waste bin before relevant content is ever developed. For photographers, there are several “outtakes” that are created before capturing the perfect, staged image (and in some cases these can be more appropriate for the project).  

Rights that are negotiable with regard to creative work

  With certain branding projects, however, it may be important that clients retain all usage rights to concepts and ideas generated for a project, such as when developing a new product for the market. A non-disclosure and/or confidentiality agreement is signed prior to work beginning, and then all concepts become the property of the client.   Photographers might agree to give all digital images to a client to help them build a digital library. These are in addition to the final, retouched photographs. Or, an illustrator may agree to develop all concepts presented for an additional charge. Unless reasonable fees or prior arrangements have been made, clients should not expect to receive the unlimited and full usage rights to preliminary work, and it remains the property of the creative firm.   When it comes to intellectual property and your brand, don’t make assumptions that you are getting everything you think you are paying for. If a brand manager or marketing director is unsure of what usage rights they are being granted once a project is paid for, ask the creative firm for an explanation, and get it in writing. Most firms are receptive and amenable to granting additional rights—especially if it means retaining a long-term client.   By: Ryan Hembree, Principal | Creative and Brand Strategy